Saturday, November 6, 2010

Jim Muro and Roy Frumkes' STREET TRASH (1987)

The bums of the side of NYC in Street Trash aren't dudes to mess around with - most of them anyway are at best thieves and liars and will stop at nothing to get that windshield washed (ah, panhandlers, those were the days), and at worst some of them will just flat-out kill you (hey, Nam was a bitch).  In this story a new booze has come into town called Viper, and when a few of the local bums who are able to buy it or steal it and then drink it MELT!  Oh, what a world!

It's not until late in the story that it becomes something of a local epidemic, but its full Alien alien-blood acid powers still loom large as we meet the rag-tag group of rapscalians here, such as Freddy, who looks like he's winning Manos the Hands of Fate's Torgo look-alike contest, or Bronson, the aforementioned Vietnam Vet who has nightmares that look like the VC are really vampires.  It drives him to basically become the main villain of the piece - rather, he's the one that is craziest, and not in the fun-way like the big black dude who steals anything he can at the supermarket.

Remind anyone of Pink Floyd's The Wall?
Jim Muro's only feature film as director, from a script by Document of the Dead maker Roy Frumkes, is an odd bird of a movie.  It's a little too well-made to sink to the level of a Troma movie, though as a 21 year old director with only limited training, Muro is far from having a handle on horror-comedy narrative like Sam Raimi.  It's made up of cast members who mostly came out of gyms or (as Frumkes noted at a Q&A I was lucky to attend) an anorexia clinic!  It's also juvenile, crude, tasteless, and within its small scope is ambitious.  It's also something that I can describe properly as "Bumsploitation".  Street Trash is not even for a lot of the movie so much about the horror but about just following around these weird and crazy characters, who sadly don't always quite go crazy enough.  It wouldn't be until Takashi Miike's Visitor Q, for example, that we would get a really proper necrophilia joke.

Special guest appearance by Mick Jagger!  This is what happens when the Stones aren't around

The movie has its moments that justify its existence and it has a few scenes specifically (one with the big-bad black dude with the beard and gas-mask who throws around 'motheruckers' like Dolamite is out of town and needs a stand-in, another involving a cut-off penis throw-around in a junk-yard) that are totally a laugh riot and awesomely staged and executed.  And Jim Muro, who spent the rest of his past twenty-some-odd years as a stedicam operator and sometimes-DP, is an excellent hand at those roving shots.  And there is plenty of energy and fun vibes coming from such a cast set against a back-drop that may or may not be as filthy and decrepit as it looks.  But there is also a lot of excess fat on the movie - for one that is under 100 minutes it feels longer - and even at the Q&A with the director he *admitted* that there was some stuff that could be cut.

 Where the phrase 'Down the Tubes' really kicks in
There is a cool cult-movie feel to it that works, though it could've been really great instead of just good.  I wanted personally to see more with the Tenefly Viper booze, specifically considering that there's the indication on the label that it was booze made by a manufacturer in 1924, during prohibition, that must have been done to go against booze-hounds.  The back-story there has such potential, and instead there's sub-plots that don't really go anywhere.  It also isn't until the last 20 minutes that the film really picks up steam with its excess and gruesome violence, with a lot of cleverly done gross-out special effects; the topper is one that is different from all the others as a fat guy who drinks the booze gets all Violent ala Willy Wonka - only this one explodes.  Take THAT Mr. Creoste!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Charles Ferguson's INSIDE JOB, or "WTF economy?"

Inside Job is designed to make the viewer in the audience angry. That is most viewers at any rate. Perhaps if one is going into the movie and is in the top 1% earning class of Americans, then maybe it will seem like malarkey and that it's an unfair portrayal of the current economic landscape. For everyone else who may still be wondering a big "WTF" about what went on with the downfall of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns and AIG and (worst of the log arguably) Goldman Sachs, Charles Ferguson's film is not just essential viewing, it's all but a call to arms. How does one react at the end of this movie? It loads up the facts and makes its message loud and clear: over the past thirty years, de-regulation and the incentivizing for Wall Street and the economic giants and banks made the worst come out in Americans - that is, those who had the power and resources to do something about it.

The movie goes through a few chapters, starting with the setting-the-stage for the events of the 2000's and the economic rise for the Wall street bankers and the like. It's clear, at least from the film's point of view (which is hard to see different in its factual basis) that Ronald Regan's sweeping de-regulation - the guy had Donald Regan, former head of Merill Lynch at the top with him as Treasury Secretary for Pete's sake - changed the landscape of the economy. Suddenly people at Wall street (or for that matter people who worked at Morgan Stanley) could make money, LOTS of money. This continued on into the 90's as Clinton kept up the financial ease for more cronyism and shady dealings, leading up to the Glass-Steagall Act being repealed in 1999, that just opened up MORE of the worst to an already greedy upper-class public.

That's the operative word here: Greed. One only has to see what happened with derivatives - which, finally, even after what Michael Moore tried to uncover in Capitalism: A Love Story, is a little clearer
as a concept, if still insane to understand goes on - and how it is quite a clever, wicked cooking scheme. Topping it all are the CDOs (or Collateralized Debt Obligations, which are not quite as complex as it
might sound from those words), which is set up for speculators to make money, lots of money. I wish I could explain it for you like the film does, but it's not quite possible: watching it you get the sense like
from a wonderful, patient and finitely interesting professor explaining how the financial crisis happened, in most part to the mortgage shenanigans. In short, a company like Goldman Sachs made a boat-load
(billions of boats and loads) with the ideal that Max Bialystock had in The Producers: how to make more money with a flop than a hit - in this case betting against crap mortgages. In a way the worst the mortgages went, the more money they could make. It was win-win for them, lose-lose for anyone with a bad mortgage-dealer with a predatory lender.  Keep that word in mind, 'predatory'.

One of the interviewees makes a great analogy midway through the movie to an oil-ship: there are compartments set up so that the oil doesn't go sloshing about, that if there weren't any compartments things would get bad enough to tip the ship over. Deregulation set the compartments on the ship to just flow and flow around. Regulations? Pshaw - not even on bonuses, the Wall-Street and bankers say. What's remarkable in Ferguson's film is how so many people at the top- and, sadly, many people in Obama's financial team right now- were crooked or feigned ignorance (or, holy shit, still do) at the financial collapse. It is the story of a house of cards, only one that reached out into the global economy. And most shocking is to see how there were chances to try and stop... no, that's too strong a word, maybe curtail or lessen the blow of the eventual tsunami hitting the public at large, and people (i.e. Hank Paulsopn) who could do things did nay a thing. There is some incompetence, to be sure, but a lot of it is not the work of stupid people. It's just blind greed; one can see the connection that is made when a doctor points out when the chance to make money is introduced to the brain of such people it's stimulated the same way it is by cocaine. Oh, and lest not forget that, and the hookers.

What one comes away with is a total lack of hope for the economic landscape. This isn't even like a Waiting for Superman where there is some minor attempt at the end to show how hope can be seen for the future of a flailing facet of life. But how can there be change when the people that should be regulating the banks and financial people in charge- the US government- does little, or sometimes not much at all?  (Ferguson does leave out some of Obama's more significant financial reform points, but for the sake of the argument of the film, and those in his cabinet, his argument still has validity) One can almost feel the urge to throw rocks at people who aren't really there when it comes time to show what happened to these f***ers at Lehman and Goldman and AIG - they got patted on the back, got their bonuses, and went on their way. Just the idea of the bonuses still keeps me like Lewis Black on a
Vodka-Red Bull combo hours after the end of the screening.

Now, I go on about what the movie shows, but how about how it's shown?  Like No End in Sight, Ferguson, who was mostly a political writer and technology expert before getting into films, has a natural knack for intellectual inquiry but also the keen ability to make things approachable for John-Q public. There's some musical montages (a wonderful opening title sequence has shots of NYC put to Peter Gabriel's Big Time, and the Hamptons put to New York Groove), so there is a little of the Alex Gibney feel. At the same time as there is very helpful narration from Matt Damon, all detailed (and with good graphs and charts, almost like a live-action political science books that is neither too low nor too high in scope for viewers), we get the interviews where Ferguson, knowing just the right things to ask, goes as objectively/journalistically as he can until they take him to the point of going "You can't be serious".

There's either people who are either very forthcoming and insightful (i.e. Barney Frank, Elitot Spitzer), or not at all (such as anyone from former Bush/Clinton administrations, or former banker-people, such as
Frederic Mishkin. Seeing a little worm like him (and there's no dicing it, he squirms on a hook he doesn't get himself off of) is just further proof of how clueless and/or arrogant, they all were. Ferguson doesn't
do any pranks ala Michael Moore, though by the end one sees that Moore's "gag" at the end of his film of cornering off Goldman Sachs with crime-scene yellow tape isn't that far off of an idea.

And in the end, I was actually more engaged, more enraged, than I was by Moore's film, or by any real serious look at the financial crisis of 2008 in general. It may not have a lot of the more personal perspective of Capitalism, but it covers such important ground that I, not quite a casual observer of the crisis but far from an expert, felt like I got the fullest and fairest picture on the causes and effect of the
meltdown. As Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is screened now in Economics classes and CNBC, this has to come next, and if anything is more like the Kill Bill to that movie's Reservoir Dogs.  This IS the Big Time.  The guys at Enron, some of the greediest fucks there are, would look at Lehman
brothers and Goldman Sachs and AIG in awe. And we should too - awe at their continuing and (now) more empowered existence. And grief.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Hey, wanna win something? Come on - Alien Blu-Ray...

Yeah, I'm gonna be that guy:


You can check out the review here.

It won't take too long to click, at least not as long as a chest-burster.

Or to check out what you can expect from the Alien series if you've never seen em:

So have a chest-burstin, rifle firin', basketball hoopin, bald-headed Weaver Gay old time!

And come check out that link to find out more about the contest, and read Cyrus' review. It's good. He typed it with fingers... or so we THINK!


Monday, November 1, 2010

TV Pilot Time - Frank Darabont's THE WALKING DEAD


If there was one other brand-spanking new series I most looked forward to this fall season aside from Boardwalk Empire, it was The Walking Dead.  Hyped for a while by anyone following buzz on the internet - first that Robert Kirkman's bloody and bloody dark and bloody damn good zombie comic book that is still on-going, was getting adapted in the first place, then by the news that Frank ("Shawshank, Green Mile, Mist, Nightmare on Elm Street 3 scribe") Darabont would be developing and writing/directing most episodes - and an appearance by cast and crew at the NY Comic-Con earlier in October, it seemed to loom large.  Especially if, as if you're like I, read most (if not all) of the Kirkman comic series.

The series begins... well, I'll get to the very opening scene in a moment.  How the story starts is with some calm but direct conversation between two cops, one of them, Rick, the Sheriff, and mostly about women and Rick's relationship gaffs with his wife, Lori.  This calmness and shootin-the-shit is broken by the call of a crazy driver going all over the place speeding on the road.  Cops pursue, other cops leave nails on the road to stop the car, it turns and flips over, and the three bad dudes in it come out guns blazing, shooting at the cops, and Rick, by stroke of very bad luck (wearing a vest) gets shot in the side and seems to be down and out.  That is, until he wakes up in a hospital, totally abandoned and left in mostly tatters inside, with a strange sign on a door locked with chains and dead-bolt "Dead Inside Don't Let Out", to which inside it rattles.

How long has Rick been out?  What with the dead bodies all in white bags in the parking lot?  More-over, where is everybody?  Like the opening of 28 Days Later, only stripped of Danny Boyle's digital experimentation and urban decay of London and given a simplistic, bare-bones GODDAMN quality of just the camera shooting to tell the story in all of its awareness-of-the-environment beats, we know as Rick does the world has become fucked.  It's from here he meets a couple other survivors- a man and his boy and their own devastation at losing their wife/mother to the "Walkers", and Rick goes on - he must find his own Lori and son Carl, and he *knows* they're out there.  After all, they took the family photo albums with them when they ran out of the house.

First off, what is this you might ask?  "A Zombie-TV series?  On Cable prime-time?  Surely ye jest!"  No, I don't jest, I'm serious as a heart-attack in saying that this may just be the kick-in-the-balls that the zombie sub-genre of horror has needed for some time.  What works so well in favor of it, aside from the prestige of having Darabont as director and a cast of actors who are not well-known but all (at least so far) carry their characters' respective emotional weight with total conviction, is that the filmmaking (fuck it, let's call it filmmaking, it is by a prestige director of mostly films, not TV, though Darabont's done that from time to time) is completely in service to the characters.  And even if you really can't care too much about zombies - by this I mean *good* zombie stories - what matters are the people, how they react to it, their devastation that barely needs a word spoken, and is shared between one and the fellow 'walker'.

I can't remember the last time I've seen such a confluence of factors work in favor of such genre material.  In George A. Romero's classic films featuring his quasi-patented living dead who rise up from who-knows-what (radiation, could be anything) and attack the living by eating their flesh and then those bitten  and/or dead returning to life and song goes on and on, the atmosphere and social satire are what is always most memorable, dread and In-Your-Face commentary like an EC Comic.  And yet as a Romero fan (by this I mean Dawn of the Dead ranking with such masterpieces as The Third Man, No Country for Old Men, Pulp Fiction, etc among what I consider towering classics of post-modern cinema history) I have to admit that not all of his characters, and certainly not all of his actors, can be up to the snuff of what he's aiming for with the ideas and style.  If some of you out there watch Romero's work and feel the characters or actors sometimes lacking, even in the quintessential Night of the Living Dead, I don't blame you.

Darabont, a fan of good living-dead movies by the likes of Romero (as he noted at Comic-Con on the panel), takes the dread of the situation of a crisis of such magnitude and brings it back down to the crucial driving force of the characters.  To be sure if the series continues, and one hopes it will past this initial six-episode run on AMC, one may see more of the actual social satire that Kirkman gets to in the series (all I need to say is one character's name - The Governor - and those familiar will feel the blood chill and know what I mean, but I digress).  For now with this pilot Darabont, producer Gale Anne Hurd and company establish Rick, Lori, and a few other key players so particularly well.  We identify with them, we care about where they're going, and they really display a keen awareness of just how fucking shocking this really is.  For one of the few times in recent memory watching a more recent un-dead rendering in popular entertainment, I wasn't thinking "Hey, haven't these guys seen a zombie movie before?"  Hey, who cares?  What about his damn wife looking through the peephole and being DEAD AND WALKING AROUND!?!

There's always believability around them, and the story moves at a fantastic pace, especially when it comes time for the real action and suspense when Rick, riding on a horse (hey, no gas, he's horse), strolls into the decayed city of Atlanta only to be surrounded by the dead.  But the horror element does need to be strong, to be sure.  On this end Darabont makes a wise choice by giving Gregory Nicotero, who has worked with zombies before (Day of the Dead his first, and thru the recent Planet Terror, among others like From Dusk till Dawn) to do whatever he sees fit while staying true to the gruesome, ugly and precisely maddeningly awful look of the Walkers.  Not one un-dead creature looks inauthentic, in walk (it's refreshing to see that they're slow, but not so slow as to be unthreatening, more like power-walker zombies I guess), or look, and Nicotero and his crew make up several to be nigh unforgettable.

The opening scene is one of these moments where Rick comes face to face with a little girl, whose face is unabashedly hideous and scarred and rotting, and Rick isn't quite sure what to make of her at first.  Then she reaches for him, he shoots, makes the head-shot, and looks totally dismayed with himself.  There's intense fear, and it works on all fronts: performance, reaction of the camera and editing, the make-up and effects.  It sets the mood for everything else to come: where's the humanity here where there's nothing left in these things?  Another two moments in this particular pilot-cum-movie are when the black father figure, with a sniper-rifle, is up in his house aiming at the head of his wife.  Without saying more than that, it becomes one of the most harrowing and heartbreaking moments in any horror entertainment.  And then there's the connection between Rick and a cut-in-half zombie, pretty much starving oddly enough, and Rick says "I'm sorry this had to happen."  Is this to himself, the zombie, or us?  All three I'd wager - it's a message to anyone who could hear.

The Walking Dead kicks ass as human drama and the awful horror of the immediate post-apocalypse.  And as with Scorsese's work on Boardwalk Empire (or going back twenty years with David Lynch on the pilot of Twin Peaks if one is doing cinematic-guys), one sees a work that in and of itself works on its own terms and reveals the skill of the artist at work, while at the same time establishing the proper mood, tone, and what intensity and stakes there are for the characters in this story.  Darabont (who showed his chops with the dark horror of humanity with The Mist) and Kirkman, with both the previous/on-going comic series and now this show, are giving some hope for a kind of entertainment that can either be made with something to say and passion, or by hacks looking for bucks.  Considering the stakes *they* are in now- the first real Sunday night TV series on cable to have this kind of attention and marketability- better go for the former.

Sample of Kirkman's comic

Sunday, October 31, 2010


It's that time again for spooks and goblins and zombies and the devil and creatures of the dead (or if you're so inclined, Saw, ::shrugs::).  As for me, I wasn't quite sure what to watch at first.  Would I venture to the local Blockbuster or my Netflix to see their horror movie wares, or just take on one of the many titles I have at my disposal?  For the sake of time and a rather crazy weekend that I shant get into here, I decided on a couple of movies I had right at my fingertips.  And as a connecting theme, these two movies would have the same director.  In this case, the Italian horror maestro, MARIO BAVA!  Ahahahahaha!

Sorry, couldn't help myself at the end there.

So, #1

Planet of the Vampires takes up a rather curious moment in Bava's career.  He had a reputation for the most part for making creepy and atmospheric horror movies that dealt with old-school themes (one of which, Black Sabbath, has Boris Karloff featured prominently), and of the two 'Black' movies I've seen, Sabbath and Sunday, both provide the kind of eerie chills via Bava's exemplary sense of cinematography and how to frame spooky space that makes up for some lacking acting or creaky sets.  But in this case, it's a science fiction movie first, and then a horror.  At least that's what the title would make us believe it's a hybrid.

Ultimately, if one had to classify it on the surface it is science fiction, and of the ilk that American International Pictures would swipe in a second for distribution.  Unfortunately, the title (albeit one of several alternate titles) is misleading, as there aren't really vampires in the sense of what we know them as (though I'd prefer to think of these as vampires as opposed to, say, Twilight ::shrug::).  So what of the story?  Astronaut-scientists in black leather suits with collars up to their necks and dubbed into English are headed to some planet, and get a big ZAP at their ship or something that makes them all go kind of bonkers on the way down; violence erupts and some members of the crew attack others.  Then they're on a mysterious, fog-filled planet, where graves have been marked that have metal coverings... and inside bodies wrapped in plastic, ready to come up on the signs of life that are on the ship.

At least that's what I could gather from it.  And actually there are two ships, and one of which that crashed on the planet none of the astronauts survived.  So what of the vampires again?  Nope, not really a-one in sight.  It's more like an infectious plague of an alien race that takes over the bodies one by one - one can tell which is which by the way Bava does a QUICK zoom-in on the faces of the astronauts, their faces becoming torn apart by the virus - and it's up to a few on-the-defensive astronauts to fend off the others and make sure they don't fulfill their plan, which is to leave the planet and take over another.

The opening minutes of when they get on the planet seem to precede Alien in means of a very creepy, densely fogged (must emphasize the fog here as it's one of the film's main attributes in its style) and well-designed planet.  Perhaps it's the Italian side of things; I could see an American director taking similar material and characters in their costumes and with some ridiculous dialog as the silly stuff that it is.  But what Bava brings to the table is the horror element, what we don't see is much more terrifying than what may come what may, and in a way what leads up to seeing the deformed and "vampiric" astronauts is more frightening than actually seeing them in the rotting flesh.

I was impressed by that aspect, how in terms of production design and mood the film was ahead of its time.  On other counts it doesn't fare better or less than other movies of its ilk (or even Star Trek) in terms of a group of people in ships come to a planet and shit happens.  But I do think that there is that added ingredient of Bava that makes the difference.  And considering also how low the budget for this movie is (I have to think they used some previous sets), there is a lot done with a little.  If one can look past most of the acting, which is admittedly stiff (even if the actresses are nice to look at in a shallow way), then the  atmosphere of a somewhat unique horror-space environment makes up for it.  It's a solid B-movie that properly has the release of an MGM "Midnight Movie" release on DVD.

Now THIS is old-school Italian horror.  This is the kind of horror movie where you got the old late 19th century/early 20th century village in Europe where there is some sort of "horror" going on plauging the townspeople, everyone is on edge and/or paranoid, and the one outsider (usually a detective or in this case a doctor) comes into town and horror-wackiness ensues.  In Kill, Baby, Kill (a mostly more apt title than the previous Bava feature, though it's more of a child than a baby), Dr. Paul Eswai comes to the village by order of an Inspector, who seems to be hard to find.  There's a woman who is deceased after jumping to her death in a well, and at first there is much resistance to her being autopsied - and why, of course, because of an odd object (a coin) found near her heart.

From here we get the murder-mystery part of the horror, where a very creepy (which is redundant) woman with gray raggedy hair and less-than-fair complexion Baroness Graps (perfectly cast and made-up Giovanna Galletti) who once had a little girl named Melissa.  Indeed Melissa turns up a lot in this community, and there have been a rash of murders that have occurred to usually healthy-normal people.  One of them, as it turns out, is Inspector Graps.  Meanwhile Melissa keeps turning up, not least of which to one of the local women in town, Monica, who may be next on the death-list that has no real writ to it.  Funny how that works out really; but then what does one expect in a village loaded with dark alleys spiked with shadows and little light, funky fog, spider-webs, and of course that little girl.

Is there a curse on this town?  Well you'll have to watch to find out, won't you?  Bava isn't interested really in keeping the audience on edge with whether it's a full-on curse and this little girl is causing these murders, or if it's all an illusion and most of the townspeople are nuts.  No, that would be too logical.  This movie is all about bringing out the dread of horror with the cinematic eye.  It doesn't matter even if a moment may not make total sense, or if a performance such as the Doctor's isn't totally up to snuff.  How does a girl plagued by nightmares and kept "safe" by her parents by strapping thorns to her body is most important for her?  Hey, what about what she 'sees' in her dazed delirium, how she gets out of bed, comes close to a knife's edge and sees the little girl outside the window looking in, her hand making an imprint.  That's what counts.

I have to wonder what kind of magic Bava could work at today; he could take a script that would be made into horse-shit by Uwe Boll and make it at least watchable in the atmospheric sense.  One of the most memorable things, in any horror movie, is the way he shoots a spiral staircase.  It comes at two points in the film; the first time it's remarkable if only for one over-head shot looking down as the Doctor goes down it after what he thinks is something like the girl.  It's lit, composed and the characters move like in no other movie with a spiral staircase.  The second time around it's even crazier, as we get the over-head shot, we get a shot looking upward, we get a zoom-in and zoom-out and zoom-in AGAIN, and it's all remarkable.  I was on the edge of my seat more during these moments more than any other (and another involving the Doctor trying to find Monica through the Sorceress' home, only to chase himself, literally, through an endless loop of the same room and door).

This isn't to say that all of Kill, Baby, Kill is incredible.  The story itself and some of the acting, despite having some over the top charm and edge, is still like a good many other old-school horror movies, either from its period or going back to the 40's.  All the Doctor would have to do is leave and come back with some no-funny-business people and all the problems could be solved in quicker time.  But then again, where's the horror-fun in that?  The joy of this movie is seeing how people react to things, and how Bava gets the "shock" of something like the little girl appearing, or a dead body as a surprise, and pulling real terror out of cinematographic technique.  It's a work like this, along with other Bava films from the early 60's, that should be seen by any aspiring DP looking to shoot horror movies - or that is anyone looking to shoot them with a sense of horror.

So, in short, watch it for how the director moves us through this paranoid-cursed village, or how the little girl makes her movements or how a person dreams in delirium.  The script one could take or leave.  There's no other word for it except as 'Gothic'.  Or a 'Gothic Gem' to be more precise.  If only it were an overall great film then it would be unstoppable.

As it stands, Bava, for all of the flaws in his films, is one of the primary horror directors in cinema.